Divine Stability and Inscrutable Inwardness

Piero della Francesca's Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

Piero della Francesca’s St. Augustine and St. John the Evangelist, from Piero’s altarpiece for the Church of Sant’Agostino in Borgo San Sepolcro (1454–69), were among the seven of his paintings on view in “Piero della Francesca in America” (February 12–May 19, 2013) at the Frick Collection. One cannot help notice the dignity and sturdiness, not to say what Frederick Hartt calls “the utmost grandeur” of the figures.1 Like Piero’s famous profile portraits of Federigo da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465), they have the same “combination of unsparing realism with inner nobility,” to again quote Hartt. Yet for all their ostensible grandeur—in the case of the saints, coincident with their place and authority in the Catholic Church (they are among its father figures); in the case of the secular Duke and Duchess, conveying their power and status (by reason of the military support the Duke gave the popes, who made him a Captain General of the Church)—all four figures are deeply self-absorbed, giving them an uncanny presence.

However socially prominent and outgoing, they retain an inner life—what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls an “inner core.” It remains peculiarly “incommunicado,” and at odds with their official importance, communicated by way of their grandeur. It gives them an inner authority, separate from the social authority conveyed by their garments, however nominally connected to it. Individualizing and humanizing them, it makes them “outstanding,” that is, their faces stand out of their costumes, indicating they are not figureheads or puppets, playing assigned roles in a social theater. It is the tension between the religious and social importance of the figures, conveyed by their grand appearance, suggesting they are higher beings than we are, and the sense that they have an inner self that exists apart from their appearance, and whose contents remain inscrutable however much they are implied by the serious demeanor of the figures, that gives Piero’s works their paradoxical intimacy. We are drawn to the figures by reason of their garments, but they withdraw from us into themselves, unreachable yet in sight. Compared to the depth of the self they seem to possess, the power and glory their garments signify seem superficial.

Piero’s figures never look us directly in the eye, not in the Misericordia Altarpiece (commissioned in 1445)—the Madonna of Mercy seems to peer downward through lidded eyes—nor in the Flagellation (1450s), nor in any of the frescos in the Legend of the True Cross series (c. 1453–54), nor in the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c. 1460–70). The Christ in the Resurrection (late 1450s) stares straight ahead, but he’s certainly not looking at us. The only exception I could find is the angelic figure half hidden behind the tree in the Baptism of Christ (c. 1450), but even his—or is it her?—glance keeps us at a distance: we can look at the scene, but we are not invited into it. What the psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer calls the “aesthetic conflict” between the outer appearance and inner reality of the other—especially significant others, which is what the Catholic saints and Urbino royalty, and above all Christ and the Virgin are—is unresolved in Piero’s figures, and, one might add, between the outside spectator and the inward-looking, oddly hermetic painting. It is what makes the figures and scenes all the more awe-inspiring and intriguing—endlessly absorbing and deeply profound beyond their Christian and societal meaning.

This unresolved tension between inner and outer is the secret of the paintings’ expressive success. It is paralleled in the difference between the splendor of the garments worn by Augustine and the Duchess, signaling wealth and power, and the simplicity of the garments worn by John and the Duke, signaling sobriety and humbleness—if no sacrifice of the authority conveyed by the radiant halo that crowns John and the glorious red hat that crowns the Duke.

Augustine’s blue inner garment is as straight as the shepherd’s staff he holds in his left hand, and the Christian narrative pictured on his cloak is as crystal clear as the staff. He holds a closed book in his right hand; he wears gloves, shoes and a bishop’s hat. He has a gray beard. In contrast, John’s luminous red cloak falls in long, swirling, increasingly dramatic curves, suggesting the intensity with which he concentrates on the text he is reading (presumably his Gospel). He has a white beard, suggesting he is older than Augustine, who in fact was born later. John’s hands and feet are bare; a halo crowns him. Like Augustine, he wears a blue inner garment, but unlike Augustine’s, it is fringed with gold and bejeweled—another halo, as it were, confirming that he’s sacred from head to foot. The golden fringe has something of the ornamental quality of the gold ornamentation on Augustine’s cloak, if much less elaborate.

The Duchess’s dress seems even more ornamental, as its lush pattern suggests. On both, organic life is abstractly expressed, in Augustine’s case with almost expressionistic intensity. The Duchess wears a small bejeweled, gold crown, attached to her head by a ribbon, suggesting that she also is sacred royalty, like the saints. She wears a halo-like choker and a string of pearls, also halo-like. The garment on top of her dress—luminously red and ornamented like Augustine’s robe—is blue, like his inner garment. Her golden blonde hair contrasts sharply with the Duke’s black hair, cropped short, unlike her long hair, neatly tied in tight curves. Its orderliness is at odds with the somewhat free-form, “disorderly” cloth—the ribbon extends from it—held in place by the hair. It is the “antithesis” of the hat, as red as his garment, that crowns the Duke. There is a large, wide body of water behind and below him; the land almost rises to the Duchess’s shoulders, and there are only a few rivers far in the distance behind her. The contrast between the Duke’s irregular hawk-like nose—he was a noted warrior as well as scholar and bibliophile—and the Duchess’s regular one, reflecting her reserve, and his dark and her pale skin sharpens the difference.

Yet for all their differences—their emphatic physical separateness—the saints are united in common Christian spiritual cause. Urbino, during the reign of the Duke and Duchess, was, as Hartt writes, “a tiny Athens” in which “philosophers, poets, and artists, including Piero,” made common humanist cause, which has its own spirituality. The saints are rulers in heaven, and the Duke and Duchess were rulers on earth, but both believed in books: the timeless truth could be found in sacred books—humanist scripture as well as Christian scripture. However different, opposed and seemingly irreconcilably separate the figures appear to be—each seems sufficient unto itself—they balance each other, suggesting that they are attuned to each other. Each is only half the spiritual and human story, just as the inscrutable inwardness conveyed by their faces and the social status conveyed by their garments belong to the same singular person, however tense and even incomprehensible their togetherness may seem. They form a differentiated whole by way of their discrepancy, even as they balance each other in a stable equilibrium. Each confirms the integrity of the other by contradicting and complementing it. The result is the peculiar sense of timelessness unique to Piero’s work—the sense of existing in a world in which there is no time. No “shock of the new” characteristic of the modern world—the endless hunger for the new, as though, if there were nothing, new life would have no meaning—but of the eternal.

“Time is the medium of narration,”2 Thomas Mann wrote, and Piero’s paintings narrate the Christian story, which subsumes the worldly story; the Christian import of the Duke and Duchess is subtly clear. But the Christian story is timeless, which means that, however told in terms of time, which is always passing and changing, it is unchanging and everlasting. All of its details are always present. They are present all at once on Augustine’s cloak—indicating that they form what has been called a “spurious present…during which consecutive events are present together in consciousness…an intensification of the sense of present that creates the illusion of eternity.” It is what the psychoanalyst Gilbert Rose calls a “necessary illusion,” which he argues is what the most convincing art becomes.3 Without it, life seems peculiarly empty, being merely a series of passing moments, and thus eventually “stale, flat and unprofitable.” Piero is a master at creating a sense of the spurious present, and with it evoking the feeling and idea of eternity. The spurious present is eternity on earth.

Madonna of Mercy, Misericordia Alterpiece, commissioned in 1445, Museo Civico, San Sepolcro, Italy, Courtesy of The Frick Collection, New York CityPiero was a master of geometry, a signifier of eternity, that is, of unchanging—literally eternal—forms, constantly self-same however also complex. Piero’s mathematical treatise On the Perspective for Painting (c. 1480) includes a section on techniques for painting faces, another on techniques for constructing perspectives, and a third section on techniques for creating perspectives by using colors. Piero’s use of colors to create perspective, to construct space, is more sophisticated and knowledgeable—not an “experiment”—than Cézanne’s. The treatise includes innovative, influential diagrams of perspective constructions of the human head and perspective studies in depth of complex, multidimensional geometrical forms. Both head and abstract geometrical forms are transparent. One sees through the solid objects to the pure forms of which they are constructed, sees the eternity that is their inner substance, so to speak. Piero also wrote, in Latin, a book on solid regular geometry (c. 1485), which was translated into Italian by Luca Pacioli, and presented as the third and final part of Pacioli’s About the Divine Proportions (c. 1497), a book illustrated by Leonardo’s woodcuts, among them the first printed illustration of a rhombicuboctahedron. Geometrical forms, however complex, exist in a spurious present, as it were, for they are eternal, unified abstractions. They have always been regarded as sacred, divine, in contrast to profane worldly forms. The latter are outwardly changing, unstable and irregular but inwardly unchanging, stable and regular—divinely stable geometry and self-regulating on the inside, unstable and unregulated worldly flesh on the outside. Natural flesh (human and otherwise) had a geometrical skeleton—divine fundament—for Piero, as it did for Leonardo and other Renaissance masters.

In the pursuit of stability, regularity, timelessness, they—and first and foremost Piero, who led the way—part company with the modernists. The latter prefer what Kandinsky called “dynamic equilibrium,” which means an unstable equilibrium—inherently unbalanced rather than perfectly balanced—to divine equilibrium, the eternal stability of self-balancing geometry. In the modern epoch, Kandinsky wrote, “everything that once appeared to stand so eternally, so steadfastly, that seemed to contain eternal, true knowledge, suddenly turns out to have been crushed (and in places smashed to pieces).”4 Could he be referring to Piero’s figures, among those of other Renaissance masters? (The so-called break with tradition that Kandinsky and other modernists made was implicitly a break with the Renaissance tradition in art.) These pieces appear in Kandinsky’s early expressionist paintings, where they move aimlessly in limbo, leftover energy from an unstable society, a society that seems to have collapsed in on itself. (His early works have been called “apocalyptic.”) Kandinsky’s gestures are flickering moments of sensation in a void, but their timeliness doesn’t make them timeless. He gives them eccentric geometrical form in his later, Bauhaus-influenced paintings, and tries to put them back together into a more or less coherent whole, but he fails to do so. The geometrized gestures continue to drift aimlessly in a void, now and then clustering into unbalanced constellations. Instability, again proclaimed “dynamic,” remains self-evident.

The asymmetry, suggestive of uncertainty verging on nihilism, of Kandinsky’s abstractions is at odds with the symmetry of Piero’s abstractions—for his figures represent and are representative of abstract geometrical forms, which is what gives them their essential sacredness. Their worldly costumes give it projective power. As the illustrations in his treatise on perspective show, he is concerned to make the inherent symmetry of geometrical forms manifest. The hands of Augustine and John, however asymmetrically arranged, are mirror images of each other, and thus “abstractly” symmetrical. The groups of figures in Piero’s Nativity (c. 1470) are asymmetrical in appearance, but symmetrically balance each other formally, just as the roof of the shed and the ground on which the infant rests do. It is a preordained symmetry, and thus divine. The exhibition of Piero’s paintings at the Frick suggests that it is time for a new stability—a new timeless sacred art, and with that a reintegration of narrative and abstract art. Stability is no doubt difficult in the modern unstable world, but it remains possible in and through art, where it remains an ideal, if no longer acknowledged. The Renaissance masters had everything the modern masters had, and much more. Indeed, they were more “advanced,” as their complex geometrical abstractions and expressionist intensity—evident in the gestural character of John’s cloak and the organic expressionist forms on the sides of Augustine’s cloak—indicate. As the aesthetician Theodor Adorno wrote, modern art—and he was a devotee and advocate of it—may claim to “will what has never existed before, but…the shadow of the past looms over everything.”5 The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Telephone (212) 288-0700. frick.org


1. Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and New York: Prentice-Hall and Abrams, 1974), p. 243.

2. Peter Hartocollis, Time and Timelessness: The Varieties of Temporal Experience, a Psychoanalytic Inquiry (New York: International Universities Press, 1983), pp. 4–5. The Mann quotation is on page 5. Following Ignacio Matte-Blanco’s bi-logical theory of the mind, which argues that “the main characteristics of unconscious functioning can be seen as arising out of symmetricized thought taking over where full consciousness would see asymmetrical relations,” Eric Rayner notes that the feeling and effect of timelessness is a consequence of symmetricization: “When the converse of a time relation is experienced as identical to it, as happens when a symmetricization emerges, then sequentiality cannot be known and time as we know it is not discriminated as existing.” “After” and “before” disappear. Unconscious Logic: An Introduction to Matte-Blanco’s Bi-Logic and Its Uses (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 45–46. This suggests that everyone unconsciously has a sense of eternity, that is, the sense of eternity is an aspect of the collective unconscious, however repressed or denied. It also suggests that symmetry involves the merging of opposites. “After” and “before” merge in the “now,” making it seem timeless, or, if one wants, making the timeless seem timely, giving it instantaneous “presence”—an immediate experience of being “beyond time” that becomes a saving grace in the modern world, where, as the sayings go, “time marches on” and “time is money.” One might say the sense of timelessness interrupts the march of time by suggesting that it goes nowhere, and cleans the temple of the money-lenders, reminding one that one can put one’s time on earth to better use.

3. Gilbert Rose, Necessary Illusion: Art as Witness (Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press, 1996), p. 125, following Winnicott, remarks “that the ontological (existential) source of the self is itself founded on a floating base of illusion,” noting that “in the form of art” illusion can “be of service to life” by “civilizing” it (p. 124), which is what the illusion of eternity can do, as Piero’s civilized paintings show.

4. Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds., Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 103. In comparison to Piero’s exquisitely realistic and realized sacred paintings, Kandinsky’s early expressionistic paintings look slapdash and barbaric (or “primitive,” the once preferred word), and his later geometrical paintings are full of false utopian promise, their forced spiritualism confirming Kandinsky’s membership in Mrs. H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. Piero’s “mysticism,” if that’s what it is, is grounded in concrete reality, compared to Kandinsky’s professed mysticism, which increasingly seems pretentious, like pie in the sky.

5. T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 195.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2013, Volume 30, Number 2